DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — A new women's center aims to reduce the number of babies born addicted to drugs and alcohol.
The Chautauqua Women and Children's Center will be a residential facility for up to 15 pregnant and postpartum women and their children up to 3 years old. Women will receive treatment for drug addiction as well as job and life skills training.
Chautauqua Healthcare Services CEO Rachel Gillis said the center will be filling a "major health need" as identified by the Walton Community Health Improvement Partnership (WCHIP).
"Opioid use has no geographic limitations," she said. "It's not just in DeFuniak Springs. ... This center is long overdue."
The center will be open within a month, said Gillis, and will serve any women who is referred to the facility. It is not limited to Walton County residents.
According to CHS, more than 4,000 Florida babies are born addicted to drugs each year. Babies exposed to drugs in the womb experience various problems, including fever, tremors, excessive crying and seizures. The problems can continue for years and result in delayed development or attention problems.
According to data from CHS, there was a 53 percent increase in arrests for drug-related offenses in the past six months in Walton County. Walton County also has the highest rate of children removed from their homes in DCF Circuit 1. Chautauqua Healthcare aided 59 women in Fiscal Year 2016 who would have met the criteria for admission to a residential drug program.
The Women and Children's Center will provide access to care for pregnant women to ensure they have healthy babies and the life skills to be a good parent to their baby. Women can stay at the center for as long as a year and can even come back after their baby is born for additional help.
"No women ever wakes up and says 'I want to be a bad mom,'" Gillis said. "We want to help women pull their live back together. There is another way. They can come here and have a do-over."
The center was made possible by community support, including grants from IMPACT 100 of Northwest Florida. A fundraising campaign is underway to offset the cost of the building, including an Amazon.com wish list where supporters can make donations that go directly to the center. All donations to the nonprofit are tax deductible.
Gillis said the purpose of the center is to help women get out of a bad environment and become better parents.
"We want them to know that their life is worth something," she said.